France’s “Green Venice”

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For many Irish visitors to France – myself included – the general idea, whether travelling by car or by plane, is to get far enough South so as to enjoy the sunshine and get close to the sea.

With perhaps the exception of the exploration of the castles along the banks of the Loire Valley, the tendency is definitely to avoid what many justifiably see as a relatively flat and featureless interior and stick to the coastline.

Calm waters ahead in Coulon

I had to struggle to overcome this natural tendency myself when my wife suggested that we go inland “for a change” to have a boat trip on the network of waterways known as the Marais Poitevin. “It’s known as the ‘green Venice’”, she proffered, strapping the three boys into the back seat of the car. I left behind the sparkling Atlantic and wondered how an inland country swampland in France could be compared with a Renaissance Italian city.

My initial impressions of it being a bad idea to get away from the coastline on a hot summers day seemed to be confirmed as we reached the town of Coulon. Charming and all as it was with its typical regional mediaeval architecture and hump-backed bridge, there was a dead heat hanging over the place.

Coulon is the local epicentre for the exploration of this green and Venetian land, be it by bicycle or boat and you can hardly throw a stone in the place without hitting either a boat-hire or a bike-hire merchant – most of them double-jobbing as both.

As well as the rivers, there is also a fairly dense network of canals in the area linking them up. This is due to the

A scenic section of the river

fact that the terrain in the Poitou-Charente region is very flat – much of reclaimed from what was once one big marsh (or marais), but also because the traditional salt-extracting industries used the waterways in their heyday to transport their bulky produce from various points inland to the sea ports of La Rochelle and Nantes.

Having parked up, we strolled along the charming-looking river bank, inspecting the various sandwich boards set up along the quayside. After some initial inspection of the different price ranges on offer, we found that there was little between them, so we plumped for the one who looked the most sensible and organised – the sort who I reckoned would not lend you a leaky boat or a defective life jacket.

I was still slightly sceptical from the safety point of view, so I devoted a number of minutes beforehand to quizzing up our chosen boat-hire/cyle operator on the various safety aspects of the vessel: Was monsieur’s boat capable of successfully carrying an entire Irish family? Did it ever happen that a ruffian came by in a speedboat, creating a freak wave that would upend the flat-bottomed bateau? Would the boat be able to contain my one-year-old bébé; prevent him from going overboard, particularly as said child had a proven record of making repeated attempts to escape from whatever he was put into? With a smile and a Gallic shrug of his shoulders, he assured me that river and canal cruising were consistently calm journeys involving no waves, and that no sober person had ever gone overboard on him yet over the course of his considerable years of experience and that, well… we really should get going as it was such a fine day and he was sure that we would love ever minute of it.

Having paid our dues, we were given a brief outline in river-boating etiquette (no entry signs, right of way, etc.), accompanied by a leaflet summing up all relevant points. The cartoon characters in the brochure looked very happy.

Once on board, I immediately assumed the role of skipper. The owner had thoughtfully left a captain’s hat for such eventualities. I slipped it on and saluted to the boat-hire man as our vessel pulled away from the quay. I quickly got used to the smooth delayed movements of the boat as I turned the wheel (steering wheel), while the crew remained seated silently to the aft of me (behind me).

Smiling crew members displaying confidence in "Papa's" navigational skills

The crew members’ vaguely worried expressions soon turned to smiles as we all discovered just how damn pleasant chugging gently along the river really is. Just as the boat-hire man had said, there were no waves to engulf us. I know that may sound as obvious as the sky was blue, but it was our first time ever on a river boat trip.

We found it dead easy to negotiate the map of the waterways, ensuring to navigate (drive) on the right, saluting fellow cruisers who passed us by. Some of my younger crew members also enjoyed greeting the various on-shore cows and horses that we came across on our journey. You get a unique and completely different perspective on a place when you explore it by river – one that you can’t have possibly imagined without seeing it for yourself. Much as I like driving through the countryside, it feels like an altogether more natural pace when you’re floating along a river, with a constantly-changing land and river-scape around you. Some of the canals feel positively Everglades-like, with a greenery-coated water surface flanked on either side by huge drooping weeping willows. Then suddenly you’re out in the open again, passing cattle quietly munching grass and a textured landscape spreading out before you in the sunshine with a glassy river winding through it. This entire enchanting world is unknown to the passing motorist.

As with most tourist products in France, the Marais Poitevin is nicely run and organised, with clearly and discreetly signposted picnic stops. After about an hour of enjoyable navigation, I pulled up at one of the designated picnic stops, whereupon the entire crew disembarked for lunch.

After consuming most of the supplies we had brought in our picnic basket, we set off again on circular journey involving a couple of rivers and one canal. The Marais Poitevin covers some 100,000 hectares and our 3-hour cruise could only take in a very small portion of it. On our particular excursion, I was happy that I didn’t have to cite a single report of boredom in the captain’s log during the entire voyage – a surprising enough fact considering the young age and short attention spans of some of the younger crew members.

When we tied up at the quay in Coulon again, it was a contented, beaming Irish family the boat-hire man greeted. Our journey through the gentle waterways of the Green Venice was far more engaging and enjoyable than I had imagined and an excellent alternative to the seaside.

Getting There:

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• Aer Arann www.aerarann.com runs a summer-time only twice-weekly service from Cork to La Rochelle (60km from Coulon).
• Ryanair www.ryanair.com runs a seasonal service twice-weekly from Dublin to La Rochelle.
• SNCF (French Railways) www.sncf.com runs a regular daily high-speed TGV service, delivering visitors from Paris (to where there are regular flights) in just over 2 hours.
• Brittany Ferries www.brittanyferries.ie operates a weekly seasonal service from Cork to Roscoff – approximately 4½-hour drive to the Marais Poitevin.
• Irish Ferries www.irishferries.com operates a weekly seasonal service from Rosslare to Roscoff.

5 Places to Stay:
• Hôtel au Marais. 46-48 Quai Louis Tardy, 79510 Coulon, France, +33 549359043, www.hotel-aumarais.com. With its distinctive blue shutters, this popular and relaxed quayside 3-star establishment is as central a location as you’ll get, with double rooms starting at €70.
• Hôtel Le Central. 4 Rue d’Autremont, 79510 Coulon, France, +33 5 49 35 81 07, www.hotel-lecentral-coulon.com. The location feels much country-like in Coulon’s other hotel, but you’re still within a couple of hundred metres of the river.
• Camping La Venise Verte. 178 Route Bords de Sèvres, 79510 COULON, France, +33 5 49 35 90 36, www.camping-laveniseverte.fr. Nicely situated in the town, this well-equipped campsite offers a wide range of accommodation from tent pitches to chalets.
• La Magnolière. Alain & Catherine Marchadier, 16 Impasse de l’Abbaye, 79000 St. Liguaire, France, +33 5 49 35 36 06, www.lamagnoliere.fr. In an area short on hotels, this high-end B&B offers stylish country living with direct access to the river from the grounds.
• Relais de la Venise Verte. Antoine et Sabrina Bertrand, Rigole du Grand Coin, 79510 Coulon, France, +33 5 49 24 45 32, www.relaisdelaveniseverte.com. For a more reasonably-priced Gîte experience, this recently-renovated & extended farmstead by the riverside 2km from Coulon is a good option.

5 Places to Eat:
• Auberge Embarcadère La Pigouille. 52 Quai Louis Tardy, 79510 Coulon, France, +33 5 49 35 80 99, www.auberge-embarcadere-la-pigouille.com. With its dining room extending onto a huge terrace right by the River Sèvre, this mid-price-range diner offers wholesome local specialities such as Farcis poitevin and Jambon vendéen, with the option of a boat-hire/meal package.
• La Venise Verte. 36 Place de l’Eglise, 79510 Coulon, France, +33 5 49 35 90 10. Hearty traditional fare in the heart of the village, including frogs’ legs, veal head and seasonal seafood.
• Le Carré d’Eau. 26 avenue du Marais Poitevin, 79460 Magné, France, +33 5 49 35 23 88, www.lecarredeau.com. Bring your swimming togs for a dip in the restaurant’s pool before trying seafood specialities and reasonably-priced seasonal dishes – by the river between Coulon and the larger town of Niort.
• Le Central. 4 Rue d’Autremont, 79510 Coulon, France, +33 5 49 35 81 07, www.hotel-lecentral-coulon.com. Very popular with locals, serving traditional cuisine in an atmospheric setting.
• L’Auberge de l’Ecluse. Route d’Irleau-La Sotterie, 79510 Coulon, France, +33 5 49 35 90 42. Situated 2km outside Coulon by a canal lock, this traditional restaurant offers menus starting at €19 in a typical regional building.

What to Avoid:
• If at all possible, avoid the weekends. This is when a good portion of the rest of France descends upon the area in large numbers, slightly tainting that slow easy pace of life that’s such an important element of the experience.

Useful Sites:
• www.marais-poitevin.com. The official website for the area is packed with information and well laid out – the best place to start if organising excursions on the waterways.
• www.la-venise-verte.com. Not the official version, but a useful website nonetheless for organising excursions and accommodation.

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